Wednesday, late afternoon….
Jonathan sat in the front room, waiting for his guest, his daughter’s prom date, to arrive. Teddy would be coming to the hotel to meet talk with him one-on-one. It had been arranged for him to get there ahead of the rest of his family who would meet them down in the lobby for the photo session Teddy’s mother arranged for him and J.J. in the hotel garden.
On his own for most of the day, he had only seen J.J., mostly heard her, in passing as she went in and out of the suite with her mother for her various appointments to get her ready for her night out on the town. He spent the time going over paperwork he brought with him and making and taking phone calls, some business related, a couple of them more personal. The quieter moments he spent in rare rest, reflect, and think mode.
The Friday past, when J.J. took off in her mother’s car to find Daria, was the first time in a very long time he thought about that Sadie Hawkins incident from his childhood. Put away for decades, he had reached way back and pulled it down from the dusty rafters of his filed away memories. It seemed to be the best way to illustrate a point, to help his own child understand the perspective of a girl a lot less fortunate than she, but for him it had also been a trip back to a powerful turning point in his own life.
Growing up, as far back as he could recall, he always felt older than the number of his life years, and he must have carried himself that way; he couldn’t ever recall being treated like a little one. In the house, he was relied upon, expected to look after everyone- at least that was how it felt, and he did his best to make good on that expecation. After that night he began thinking, with definite purpose, like the man his body grew into: determined, independent, observant, calculating, prepared to seize opportunities when they came his way but ever mindful of what Anastasia told him when he left Mission Street to live with Max.
“Always keep with you, in your heart, from what you have come and where you have been; that will aid you in your decisions on where, to what, and to whom you choose to go.
Paying attention and listening, two of his stronger suits, especially when the message came from someone whose opinion he so highly respected.
And look where it got him.
From his spot on the couch, he slowly panned the room, absorbing and taking solace from his pleasant, more than comfortable surroundings, including the gold bracelet Jennifer had left on the coffee table the night before…
… and to a very good life with a family I love.
And to Little Daria, another old soul.
Just as he suspected they might, he found at breakfast with her on the previous Saturday that they had a lot in common when it came to their perspectives on people and themselves. A bit shy and hesitant at first with him, by the time they left the restaurant, she had been touched and grateful to him for taking time to talk with her in that way. He hadn’t had the words to let her know he was paying back time he owed, or to explain to her how grateful he was to her for letting him in. It took a whole lot for a kid like her to do that. He understood that, and it meant a lot to him that she had.
What a kid. His kid knew how to pick them. That entire inner circle of hers….
J.J. His Justine Jennifer….
Jennifer’s girl these days, but still very much like her Daddy….
A good thing in some ways, but in others….
He shook his head and laid it back.
The preliminary sketches and pictures of her prom dress in progress had been shared with him; he had seen the finished garment itself, but he had yet to see it on her.
Again, Jennifer’s girl.
At least the thing has straps. Sure wish they were wider… and shorter….
Clever, able and confident; just as he had been at her age. Old and wise in the head, but curious, adventurous, impulsive, restless, and chafing at the bit holding her back from taking off in all the directions she wanted so badly to go.
Back when he was her age, he had Max who was competent and steadfast with those reins he held. J.J. had her mother, who was quite capable in the driver’s seat with her daughter strapped in next to her.
His child, to whom he made that promise decades before she was born, had been delivered into the best possible hands on that morning seventeen years back. Despite Jennifer’s sentiments to the contrary over the years, he always considered himself her backup in raising their child; from day one she had always been in charge when it came to that part of their lives together.
The two of them had left him at the breakfast table that morning to begin their running around for the day, which was just as well. Aside from paying for it all, there wasn’t much else he could do to help with any of those errands and appointments; Jennifer had the day’s activities mapped out before they left Los Angeles.
He did; however, have something he wanted to give J.J. before her evening out.
It made him smile thinking how it felt like only a couple of years ago he and Jennifer were delivering J.J. to Ms. Cavanaugh, the kindergarten teacher at the academy. What a learning experience that first formal school year had been for all of them. In those nine months, J.J.’s intelligence, personality, and character displayed itself in spades. It was his and Jennifer’s first time seeing their daughter through lenses not so up close and personal, their first glimpse at what they had been given in terms of a little person to raise to adulthood.
The road traveled had not always been easy; at times the girl had been a real handful. Many were the parent-teacher conferences where J.J.’s stellar academic performance took a backseat to some other things she had done.
…. and those couple-few he attended, initially without Jennifer’s knowledge, that he and J.J. tried, usually unsuccessfully, to keep between them…..
“Mr. Hart, she’s a saint and a scholar in the classroom, but she can be a terror on the playground. She’s no shrinking violet when it comes to giving the boys a run for their money.”
He looked the woman right in her eyes. “Is she starting things with the boys?”
“No. She just doesn’t take ‘no’ or ‘you’re just a girl’ for an answer. She will take up for herself. If confronted, male or female doesn’t seem to be of any concern to her.”
An opponent is an opponent. When pushed, push back. He subscribed to that line of thought, and apparently it was genetic.
“Well, as long as she’s not starting the trouble and it’s the boys running from her, not the other way around.”
The headmistress looked startled by his response, but that was of no matter to him. As long as his position- and J.J.’s- on the issue was understood.
And the time in the eighth grade when she knocked the one boy on his ass for smooching hers.
At the resulting conference, one he deliberately attended without Jennifer, he made sure the boy AND his daddy got the message….
“Not any girl, but definitely not my girl. You better be glad she got to you before she came home and told me she had taken care of it ….”
But now, closer to the end of the charge than the beginning, the initial pangs of separation anxiety were becoming harder for him to ignore. Not that the girl would be leaving home the next day, but in many ways it felt like she was already inching her way out of the door.
Maybe that’s what eating at me… that and….
There would be this one, to which she had been invited by Teddy. Next year there would be another, her own, to which she had already invited Teddy to accompany her. What was that saying about how she felt about the boy? Was she that enamored of him? Or was she simply being her typical practical self and lining up a date with somebody she could be sure of rather than waiting and getting asked by someone she might have to keep her guard up with all night?
Getting harder to tell with my child.
And what about Teddy? Was he that taken with her?
How could he not be?
Please don’t make me have to kill you, boy. I kinda like you, but I wi-“
The house phone rang next to his arm, and he picked up the receiver.
“Mr. Hart, you have a guest,” a female voice at the front desk announced, “a very well-dressed young man, carrying a lovely corsage. He states you are expecting him.”
“I am. Please send him up.”
Jonathan rose, smoothed his slacks, and went over to knock at the closed door to J.J.’s rooms. He took a ribbon-wrapped rectangular velvet box from the inside pocket of his vest and left it on the table by the door. Then he crossed back over the front room of his suite to be waiting at the open door when his guest arrived.
“Are you sure all you want is this simple braid for a prom hairstyle?” Jennifer asked, holding her daughter by the shoulders.
As they both checked J.J.’s appearance in the mirror, her mind went back five years to another time when she and J.J. sat surveying each other in the glass- that time she caught J.J. in a prepubescent lip-lock with her friend, Tommy “The Kissing Bandit” Steele.
Now the girl was seventeen and headed to her first prom with another charismatic young male friend.
My baby. So lovely, grown up, and still so very precious.
J.J. fluffed the wavy, loose end of the elegantly plaited auburn rope draped over her shoulder and her mother’s hand. “This is perfect. I love how you left it a little messy like that around my face. It looks casual even though it’s formal. It’s a lot better than that super-starched Barbie hairdo the stylist tried to give me for Aunt Pat’s wedding, and you had to do it over.”
“I wouldn’t have had to do it over if you hadn’t picked it loose.”
“If I hadn’t picked it loose, I would never have come out of my room, wedding or no wedding. Looking like a helmet head on the picture, I think not. Now can you help me pick out some jewelry? I selected and brought several pieces I thought would be nice, but I need to see them in person with the hair and dress to narrow it down to what will work the best”
“When are you going to trust your own judgment in these matters, J.J.?”
“Probably never. I’m not as good at this stuff as you are. I’ll be at college, trying to go to some cotillion, frat ball, or whatever, calling you up. Begging you to fly in and help me. Sending you pictures to get your opinion. Bugging the cra- bugging you until you just give in and come help me to shut me up from whining in your phone.”
“As much as I’d like to say I wouldn’t indulge you,” Jennifer said as J.J. untied and carefully unrolled the velvet travel carrier to reveal several exquisite, glittering jewelry pieces, some of which she didn’t recognize as having seen before, “I have to admit I probably would give in and do what you needed me to do. If you cared enough to ask, I’d have to think you really needed the assistance. Can’t have you out there on formal occasions looking thrown away.”
On the vanity lay part of J.J. Hart’s daddy’s investment in his daughter’s aesthetic, as well as financial future. She mentioned having brought what she thought were best choices for the occasion to compliment that particular dress. That implied there was more in her safe deposit box that she left behind.
This was an area between Jonathan and J.J. over which she had never had a say. The girl loved jewelry, particularly diamonds, and her father absolutely loved that she did.
“What do you think about this one?” J.J. asked, fingering a simple but lovely white gold choker.
A knock drew their attention and stopped Jennifer from commenting.
She left the bathroom and walked through the bedroom into the front room. Nobody was on the other side of the door joining J.J.’s suite to theirs, but she did notice Jonathan heading toward the door on other side of their front room. Then she spotted the beribboned velvet box on the table next to the floral arrangement. She picked it up to reveal a small envelope placed underneath it addressed to “J.J.” in Jonathan’s script. She picked that up, too, and went back inside, closing the door behind her.
J.J. had come to the bedroom door.
Dressed in a strapless bra and slip, with her gown draped across her arms, she said, “I guess I should get into this first. Then maybe it’ll be easier to pick out a necklace and earrings. Can you fasten the zipper for me once I got into it? I can be kinda clumsy. I’m going to try to step into it. I don’t want to mess up my hair and makeup after you spent so much time and money on them.”
Then she peeked around her mother. “Wasn’t somebody at the door?”
“I think your father left something for you.”
Jennifer continued into the room, holding up the box and card for her to see. She exchanged those items for the dress and watched as J.J. used her finger to break the seal on the envelope.
The card inside was blue but blank on the front, and a smile formed on J.J.’s freshly glossed lips once she flipped it open.
“My father of few words.” She turned the card around for her to see, “Happy 17th birthday. Love, Daddy,” also written in Jonathan’s hand.
“He has never been one for saying very much in writing,” Jennifer said.
J.J. began untying the ribbon around the box. “But he gets his messages across, doesn’t he? I thought we were waiting ‘til Saturday to celebrate.”
“I assure you there is no ‘we’ to that box; I had no hand in this at all. Whatever is in there is strictly your father’s undertaking. I’m as curious as you to see what’s inside. Maybe even more so.”
“I doubt that; Harry Winston? I lo-o-o-ove this kind of surprise.”
Both sets of eyes widened when J.J. lifted the hinged top. “Whoa! Never mind about us picking out accessories; Daddy’s taken care of it.”
“I’ll say.” Jennifer traced a fingertip along the delicate swirls of the heart design that could have been scripted with the finest calligraphy sharp. Tiny diamond baguettes inset along the flat places in the design flashed in concert with the single fiery round cut stone set at the juncture of each top curve.
With the tips of two manicured, French-tipped fingers, J.J. gingerly lifted it from its recessed resting place. “There’s something written inside.” She took it to the light and held it close to her eyes.
“It says ‘Hart to his Hart’, like inside your ring. Isn’t that sweet?”
“My inscription left out the word ‘his’,” Jennifer said as she approached J.J. for a closer look. “You are your daddy’s daughter, his only, as you like to say.”
J.J.’s cheeks flushed as she reached to pull her mother to her for a quick one-armed hug. “And I’m yours too, as you frequently remind me. I love you both. You were his before I was; I’m just a by-product, so, don’t hate.”
“Come on,” Jennifer said, shaking her head at her urban debutante and pulling back to keep the gown on her arm from being included in the embrace. “Let’s get you into this. I think Teddy might have arrived. I happened to spot your father on his way to the door when I picked up this box.”
J.J. didn’t say anything, but Jennifer noticed the minute stiffening at the mention of Teddy’s name and then how quiet J.J. became as she allowed herself to be helped into the dress. After zipping it up, Jennifer took the opportunity to make the offer one more time.
“Sweetheart, is there anything you’re not sure of? Anything that’s bothering you- well perhaps not bothering you, but that you want to talk about or ask me before you go out tonight? Anything at all.”
The silence continued as she fastened the clasp and the safety on J.J.’s new necklace. Then came that single ‘I give up’ tip of that young head before the softly delivered admission.
“I don’t know, mom. I don’t even know where to start. There’s so much I don’t know. So much I want to do. So much I’m not sure of. So much….”
Necklace and dress secured, J.J. turned around. “I do want to ask you something, but it’s very personal. Very. Please understand, I’m not asking out of nosiness or any salaciousness on my part. I-“
Sensing the territory into which they might be headed, Jennifer held up one hand. “Justine, I have told you, I do not want you living your life based on what I’ve done in mine, so-“
“No, no,” J.J. quickly said, reaching for and holding her mother’s forearm. “I’m not asking so I can do what you’ve done. Sometimes, though- you said it yourself once; I need graphics, visuals, actualities- I need examples or gauges to know if I’m okay, if I’m on point with my thoughts. You are- I’m completely serious and so lucky for it- the best example of the kind of woman I want to be one day. That’s why I’m asking.”
J.J. tipped her head and locked eyes with her. “How old were you?”
“How old was I?”Jennifer cocked her own head. “When?”
“When you made love the first time. Honest, please understand, I’m not being nosy. I’m just-“
The heavy question dropped Jennifer onto the chair arm right behind her. She shifted J.J.’s hold on her arm to take J.J.’s wrist and bring her in closer. “Are you thinking that might happen with you and Teddy tonight?”
“Will you answer me first?”
Jennifer sighed. “I was seventeen, and it wasn’t making love. It was sex, pure and simple.” She lowered her eyes from her daughter’s. “And not the right time or reason at all.”
She felt J.J.’s silent sigh.
When she looked up again, she found J.J.’s Jonathan-blue eyes waiting for hers to return.
“Thank you, Mom. I’m not planning on having sex with Teddy tonight or with anybody anytime soon. I still don’t feel it’s the right time for me either. I just needed- I don’t know- confirmation- maybe just you, I guess. Sometimes I’m- I’m just not sure if what I’m thinking is right, or if it’s me just being sca- nerv- hesitant about living or something. Sometimes I feel like such a baby compared to some people I know, but then you- well, I talk to you and I don’t feel that way so much for while.”
“You do things in your own time, J.J. That makes me happy. You will be happier for doing things in your own way and within your own time frame, believe me. I’m glad you come to me, but sweetheart please don’t live your life by me or mine.”
J.J. rested a hand on her shoulder. “I know. I so feel bad sometimes when I think about how you didn’t have your mother for you like I do when stuff gets confusing, or feels too complicated, or I just don’t know what I’m doing. If it was wrong for you when it happened, maybe you would have waited, too, if you had your mother in your life at the time.”
Jennifer slowly stood, taking both of J.J.’s hands in hers to admit, “I’m sure I would have, but things worked out the way they should have. My experiences, the positive and the negative, have grown me into who I am. They helped me become the person who can help you with yours. Now go ahead and put the earrings on.”
She watched as J.J. removed the double set of fiery studs from their places in the gift box and fit them into her ears.
Leave it to Jonathan Hart to remember to take care of both sets of piercings in his child’s ears. If she had six sets, he’d have accommodated all twelve holes.
When J.J. was done, Jennifer smoothed her thumbs over both the girl’s cheeks on the pretense of smoothing her makeup, but really admiring the unique person before her. No tea parties, dolls, dress-up, or ballet like she anticipated as she carried her inside her body. Instead, over the years there had been all kinds of ‘boys’ toys’, digital gadgets, athletic equipment, and lots of friends in and out. Heck, one of them now actually lived in- the house and their hearts.
“You are so lovely, Justine, and not just on the outside.”
J.J. went around her to retrieve a scarf from the chair seat. It was the one Tommy sent her as a Christmas gift, which she planned to use as a wrap for the evening.
Funny, Jennifer thought as she watched with some small pride J.J. artfully drape it low across her shoulders and back, how that particular scarf went so well with a dress acquired months later and for that particular occasion.
J.J. turned back around and kissed her cheek, whispering next to her ear, “So are you, Mom.”
That night, Jennifer didn’t bother pulling up on the bodice of her daughter’s dress. She figured it was time J.J. Hart began making those kinds of decisions for herself.
“I don’t know why you didn’t insist upon him having a limousine for tonight,” Helena Baxter was saying. “All the other couples will be arriving by limousine. If he had a driver for the night, we wouldn’t have to be worried about them being out there on the road. You let him do whatever he wants.”
“I’m not worried. I simply did what he asked me to do. He wanted to use my car rather than my renting a limo for him; I gave him my car. He’s a responsible kid. It’s his prom; it was his and J.J.’s decision whether or not to hire a limo for their transportation, not ours.”
Jonathan inwardly cringed at the overheard exchange between Teddy’s parents as they all stood together in the hotel garden.
With the professional photo shoot over and the kids on their way to the event, he wanted to invite Baxter, Sr. into the hotel bar for a drink or two and maybe catch the game on TV to give the man a break. Baxter’s company, he enjoyed. His ex on the other hand…
No way do I want her thinking I’m inviting her, too. And I don’t want Jennifer to have to be bothered with her if he and I take off…. but it would be rude to exclude her.
Victoria, Teddy’s sister, was currently off to the side with Jennifer reviewing photos Jennifer had taken on her camera.
“One more thing I’ve been cut out of in this,” he heard Helena say in a voice he was sure she meant only Teddy, Sr. to hear.
Jonathan pushed his hands farther down in his pockets and put his back to the uncoupled couple.
Teddy, Sr., he thought, was a far better man than he might be in that scenario. Despite the barbs thrown his way most of the evening, the man hadn’t raised his voice one time. Hadn’t allowed even a hint of the annoyance he had to be feeling to color anything he said in his limited, skillfully worded replies to her.
In his head, Jonathan played his hypothetical response to the woman’s behavior.
What more do you want? Your son kissed you goodbye, told you how happy he was you came to Boston to see him off, and thanked you for it. He saved you two some money by foregoing a limo for an entire night. He’s a boy, for Pete’s sake, whose father seems to have a pretty good handle on him, what he needs, and what he wants. Lay the hell off both of them.
When Teddy first arrived at the apartment, he immediately picked up on the boy’s more subdued aura. He sensed Junior had something on his mind, and it had little or nothing to do with having to talk with J.J.’s father about his night on the town with her. In response to that, he scaled back on what he’d planned to say to the boy. Somehow, even though he didn’t know what plagued Teddy, anything more than a thinly veiled warning felt unnecessary. Teddy had come around J.J. enough times to be fully aware of her father’s expectations.
“You’re making too much of things. In fact, you’re making something out of nothing.” Teddy, Sr. said.
Jonathan’s back was still to them, but in the minute gap between Sr.’s response and Helena’s answer to it, in his mind he saw her eye her ex from toe tip to forehead before she muttered, “The hell with you.”
“Vickie,” she barked as she walked away, “I’m leaving to go back to the hotel. Are you coming with me?”
The three of them had arrived together, so it appeared Teddy, Sr. was being left to find his own way home.
Jonathan leaned his head back to the other man to ask from the corner of his mouth. “Feel like a drink?”
Baxter leaned back, “How about several?”
“I got a better spot. We can get a cab over.”
“I’ve got my rental,” Jonathan offered. “Let me see what plans Jennifer has.”
When he turned back around, he spotted Helena headed with obvious purpose toward the short term parking area alone; Victoria was still head-to-head with Jennifer over the camera.
A few minutes later, the two men were on their way to valet to summon the car, and Jennifer and Victoria were on their way back inside the hotel.
J.J. searched Teddy’s profile as if the answer she sought could be found there.
They had been in the car for nearly ten minutes, and he hadn’t said one word since they departed from their families after the photo session. He hadn’t been all that talkative before the pictures. Somber wasn’t what she was accustomed to in her normally cheerful, upbeat friend. She had seen glimpses of that darkness on the night before when they were out, but together with him again, it appeared to have taken a stronger hold.
Compelled to check on him but unsure of how he’d take it, she cautiously ventured, “Hey, are you okay?”
The question combined with the touch of her hand to his arm seemed to summon him back from the remote place he had gone.
“Oh, I’m sorry, J.,” he said with an embarrassed smile that immediately eased her concern, “I’m all right. Just have some things on my mind.”
She leaned forward, straining against the seatbelt to see more of his face. “Is it your mom still?”
He didn’t say, but the fading of that smile confirmed for her that she was likely on the money with her supposition.
“It wasn’t that bad, Teddy. The photo session, I mean. Besides, it’s over with now. It was just taking some pictures, and now we’re finished with all that.”
“I didn’t mind having to stop to take all those staged, fake pictures, J.,” Teddy said. “I don’t mind any of it, the tuxedo, the photographers, all the preparations. I kinda expected most it. It’s just whenever my mother gets involved, it- she- she gets so over the top about things, especially when important people are around.”
“Yeah, she’s real impressed, or something like that, with your mom.”
“My mother? Why?”
“Are you kidding? Your mother? And your father? But then, I guess for you- anyway, all the lights, camera, action, limos, and social paparazzi crap might have been okay for my sisters, but-” He took his eyes from the road for a brief section to look to her. “I’m sorry. We should be having a good time, not-”
To cut him off, J.J. lightly squeezed the arm she continued to hold. “Chill out, my friend. Relax. I’m not all that fond of the spotlight, myself, but I’m surprised at you not liking it. I mean, you being a thespian and all.”
“Different kind of spotlight, J.”
“Okay, I get that. Look, we can’t have fun if one of us is going to be bummed out all night over something that’s done with or somebody that’s not with us right now. You need to let that go so you can enjoy your prom. Why don’t you go ahead and talk to me about what’s bugging you. I think you’ll find I’m a real good listener.”
“No, no. Nothing to talk about, except maybe that dress. I meant to say it earlier, when you first came in with your mother. Not that it’s bugging me, I mean, at least not in a bad way. You and it are beautiful, J. That color is great on you; it goes so nice with your eyes. Then there’s your hair. Just everything. That scarf really sets it all off. Most of all, though, I’m just glad you’re with me tonight.”
“Thank you. For the nice compliments, I mean. I’m glad to be here, too.”
But at Teddy’s mention of the scarf, Tommy Steele, tall, and silently imposing, sauntered into her mind, assessing her outfit for himself. She mentally thanked him again for the gift of the scarf, chastised him for trying to insert himself into her business yet another time, then she shut him down and sent him packing.
“So I never got to ask you,” she said aloud to Teddy, “How did your talk with Daddy go? He was awfully quiet today. That is, when I got to see him in passing by him. My mother and I were in and out, getting me ready, and I got the feeling Daddy was practicing in his head for meeting with you. So did he rake you hard over those glowing hot coals he’d been stoking all day? Made sure you saw the gun?”
Teddy laughed. “Actually, no, he didn’t. But then, he’s never done me all that hard, although I did see the gun the first time I had to talk with him at your house in Los Angeles. I’ve found in my dealings with him that the anticipation has always been worse than the real thing. Or maybe I just don’t notice him raking me. I can be a little oblivious about that kind of thing. Your father is a pretty nice guy in my opinion. In fact, his style is a lot like my own dad. I can understand him being protective of you; you’re pretty precious, especially to him. For tonight, he just said for us to be careful, and for me to bring you back “the way she left with you”.
J.J. stiffened. “What was that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know,” Teddy said, keeping his eyes on the road but reaching his hand to find hers. “I chose to take it to mean bring you back as J.J. Hart. When he said it, I’m sitting there thinking, who else would I bring back to him?”
Her hand in his, J.J chose to back off what she first perceived as a chauvinistic insult to her judgment.
“My box is in the trunk, right?” she asked.
“Of course. That’s why we drove the car. No witnesses, you said.”
“Even though my mother gave me the blues over not wanting a limo for my prom.”
“Your father’s car is better; it’s completely private. Just us and no need for explanations to anyone else. Besides, I love Jags, and this one is real nice.”
“It’s my dad’s baby. In fact, I was a little surprised he gave it up so easily.”
“You’re pretty precious to your dad, too. I can tell. He probably preferred you had his car tonight, like I’ve figured out my mother does in so easily letting me use her car; they can keep a measure of control over the situation like that. They know there’s only so far we’re going to go, so much we can get into, and only so much that we’re going to let happen in their cars. I told you about that drunk girl, Kerry throwing up in the back of my mother’s car, and I had to go on lockdown for a whole weekend for coming home late from having to get the thing detailed before I could bring it home.”
“Your mother ever find out about that?”
“I’m sure she had her suspicions, but she tends to pick her battles. She just locked me down for missing curfew. I guess since I made it in safe and sound, and the car came back okay, she didn’t need the details of why I was late.”
“But J., she might have let you off if she knew you were late because you were trying to keep Kerry from being taken advantage of by the group of guys who were trying to take her home.”
J.J. shook her head. “But then I would have had to explain why I happened to be somewhere people were able to get wasted enough to puke in someone’s car. At least I had peace of mind with doing what I could to get Kerry home safe, and I had the right hookup to get the car detailed at that time of night. As far as my mother went, it was best I just take the rap and let her have her measure of control. After I came off the rock for the curfew violation, she let me have the car again with no restrictions other than the ones already in place. I was good with that.”
“Yeah, I definitely see your point when you put like that. Say, you’re still okay with the hotel and all?” His eyes met hers as they waited at a red light. “I mean, it’ll be all night.”
She nodded. “I know. I’ve made up my mind, and I’m fine. I’ve been wrestling with the feeling for a while now.”
“So you’re not scared?”
With a single wave of her free hand, she dismissed the notion.
He laughed. “We do have that in common, J.J. Hart. Not being scared to take a shot, I mean.”
“If it plays out like we’ve planned it, it’ll be worth it.”
They laced fingers and squeezed.
A short time later, they pulled up to the guard’s booth of their waterfront destination, the Harbor Glen Yacht Club, where they presented their tickets and were admitted to the start of their big night.
Teddy handed the key off to a valet while another opened the passenger door. Just as he joined J.J. on the walkway, a limo pulled in behind their car. Several couples got out of it on both sides, voices crying out, “Teddyyyyy! J.J.!”
It was Madison and Dee, two of the girls J.J. shared a suite with when she attended her mother’s reunion at Gresham Hall the previous summer. They and their dates, Brookfield boys, were also friends of Teddy’s.
The girls all hugged while the boys shook hands and patted backs. Madison introduced J.J. to Hugh, her date, and to Fitz, who Dee, a Junior like J.J., was accompanying.
“Fitz,” J.J. repeated. “I like it. Is it short for something?”
“Fitzwilliam,” Teddy provided before the other boy could speak. “He’s as afflicted as I am with ‘Theodore’.”
Fitz tipped an imaginary cap to J.J. “Fitzwilliam Kilpatrick Downing, at your service, miss.”
J.J. grinned at the gesture and the boy’s mellifluous brogue. “Oh, somebody is good and Irish. I love it. And it’s Ms.”
“It’s for sure,” he said, “every day of my life, mzzzzzzz.”
“An import,” Dee explained, congenially bumping shoulders with J.J., “and he’s a Fitz, the Third. I’nt he cute? Exchange student, graduating from Brookfield.”
Then, as if just noticing, Dee stepped back to take stock of J.J. “ Gee, you look great, too. The last time we were together in person, I think you were in pants or running shorts the whole time.”
“I could say the same thing about you,” J.J. said, laughing as she swept a glamourous Dee with her eyes.
“Except when J.J. had that nightgown on with her blazer when Teddy brought her up to the theatre balcony,” Madison said.
“Oh, yeah,” Dee laughed, “I forgot about that. And don’t forget she had that nightgown and robe on when he carried her up to the bedroom when she fell asleep in the common room.”
“Hmmm.” Hugh cocked his head to one side as he turned to Madison. “Where was I for all this?”
“Spending the summer with your folks in the Hamptons, I do believe,” she replied. “And at your aunt’s boating, attending summer dances , going to cookouts, and hanging-
“- while I was stuck at summer school making up grades and cleaning stables,” Teddy cut in.
“It was our mothers’ reunion,” Madison picked back up with Hugh, but including Fitz, “My sister, Dakota and I weren’t there to catch up grades or anything; we just came up for the function with our mom. That’s where we all met Miss J.J. here. She and her friend, Marnie stayed in our suite.”
“Well, it sounds like it was a pretty interesting visit just the same,” Hugh said, “Listening to Teddy and Dee’s stories about it, summer school doesn’t sound like the huge drudge it’s made out to be.”
“Certainly wasn’t for me,” Dee piped up. “Thanks to J. here, I actually passed math and science- with B’s no less. That was the best I had done in those classes since I enrolled at Gresham. I’m doing okay now, too.”
Teddy wrapped an arm around J.J. to squeeze her to his side “Wasn’t a drudge for me either. Got me an entirely new adventure from being stuck in summer school.”
Madison rolled her eyes at him. “You were doing okay on that adventure thing before she got here. Just around there doing whatever you wanted, in and out of everywhere you wanted to go and constantly busted for being off campus. That’s what landed you in summer school and the stables and under your uncle’s thumb.”
As they all talked, laughed, and got acquainted, another stretch limousine pulled to the curb. Valets converged upon it to hold the doors open for the occupants that poured out on both sides. The female in the last of the four couples to emerge honed in on their group, sweeping J.J. from head to foot with an unmistakably disdainful look as she passed.
J.J. caught Teddy averting his gaze from the girl. When she shifted her own eyes to the other two females in their party, Madison and Dee answered her in kind.
“Game on,” J.J. said to herself as Teddy took her arm and their group started inside the yacht club.
Jennifer waved as she watched Victoria’s cab pull off, then she went back inside. At the elevator bank, waiting for a car to arrive, she remembered Jonathan had gone out with Teddy, Sr., and she changed her mind about going up to the suite. Instead, she detoured to the hotel bar where she took a seat at a small booth under one of the light fixtures to better see as she reviewed again the pictures on her camera while enjoying her drink order.
Teddy and J.J.
Braces, acne, growth awkwardness and the accompanying self-consciousness largely behind them, the kids made a poised prom couple. Both of them talented, intelligent, and confident with nothing but possibility and opportunity in front of each of them, they were two promising- and attractive- young people, indeed.
What a great time of life….
At the photo of Teddy with his father, she stopped again and smiled. Bear had his arm around his boy, and pride and mutual admiration radiated from the both of them. On more than one occasion, J.J. had mentioned Teddy’s close relationship with his dad.
Teddy Jr. looked a lot like his father had at seventeen, but Bear played defensive tackle for Brookfield way back then. While he and Teddy, Jr. were the same height, young Teddy wasn’t and would likely never be as substantial a man as his father in size.
Another click brought up the shot of Teddy with his mother.
Both parties smiled in the photo, but her years as an investigative reporter had Jennifer checking things out a little more closely, delving beneath the surface.
Mother certainly playing to the audience, as is the little one, but his eyes have considerably dulled since posing with his father. Jr. is not in this one to win it. Just wants it over with.
Poor baby. Poor Helena. That has to be difficult for both of them.
By the time Teddy took the photos with his sister, the light was back in those dancing brown orbs and the playfulness had returned to his spirit. It wasn’t a lack of love he sensed in Teddy, Jr. for his mother; it looked and felt more like a kind of discomfort. When she and J.J. joined Jonathan and Teddy upstairs in the suite, Teddy seemed a bit more subdued than the past times she had seen him. By the time he and J.J. parted from everyone in the garden to head to the yacht club, Jr. looked to be on the verge of illness.
Which made sense based on what she learned while talking with Teddy’s big sister as they worked together in the business office copying some of the pictures on her camera card to a CD for Victoria to keep and in their conversation later over dinner salads in one of the hotel restaurants.
What a nice visit. What an interesting young woman.
Bear had done well, with at least those two of his children. According to what she had learned from Victoria, it was no wonder he moved himself and his son to Boston, leaving his ex and the other girls in West Virginia after the divorce. Sometimes, to keep the peace, distance was the best thing. It sounded as if young Teddy was certainly better served for the move.
Scrolling on, she stopped at a picture Jonathan took of her and J.J. together. That gown was such a flattering design and color for J.J. That girl had always preferred plain and simple to what she termed “pomp and circumstance”, but it was working out that she did it with her own becoming and stylish flair.
She clicked over what turned out to be a most attractive shot she took of J.J. by herself with the fountain behind her, a light breeze lifting the loose hair around her face as the ends of that scarf swirled around her. At the tender age of just-turned-seventeen, Justine Hart cut an unmistakable presence, no matter what she had on.
Imagine that impudent pup asking me that question.
… imagine me answering her.
But like J.J. said, as a visual learner, she needed charts, graphs, vivid examples she could witness in action to help her fully understand a concept and its possible benefits and-or ramifications. If the girl had the nerve, the need, to ask, what else could her mother have done other than give her an honest answer?
Teddy’s awfully handsome, especially tonight….
But she says she’s not interested in that…
Who knows what my child was really seeking at that moment?
Then, too, there was always the very distinct chance J.J. already somehow knew the answer to the question she asked, so to have ducked it might have been disastrous to the trust built between them.
…wonder what made her ask?
In her mind traveled back to her own prom, particularly after the prom.
Seventeen and utterly clueless.
Nobody to talk with. Nobody to tell about the disappointment, the anger.
The hurt and disappointment.
She closed her eyes and inwardly winced upon dredging up that long put away recollection.
And how stupid I felt in the effort to prove myself so smart, so grown up and sophisticated.
Except Pat, who certainly hadn’t had the same experience I had. She was with who she wanted to be.
Now my child is out with his son. Funny how things work out.
Haven’t talked with Pat today. I really should phone and check on M-
“Excuse me, are you alone?”
She broke off reaching for the phone in her pants pocket and opened her eyes to find a man standing over her. Caught off guard and a little rattled by at allowing herself to be walked up on by a stranger, she couldn’t immediately summon the words to reply.
“Forgive me,” he said in response to her silence, “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just saw you sitting here all by yourself, and thought a lovely lady like you might like some company.”
He wasn’t a bad looking guy, tall, dirty blonde gone to white at the temples, chisled features, kind of flushed in the face, maybe a little younger than she with a bit more paunch than she found attractive.
Coupled with his too-familiar proximity, the assumption that any woman out on her own had to be desirous of male attention had her bristling. Then she noticed he was carrying two drinks.
She opened her mouth to graciously, but firmly turn him down, but another voice interjected before the words reached her tongue.
“Oh, here you are, darling.”
Jonathan slid onto the seat across from her and looked up to the guy standing next to her.
“One of those for me?”
The man wordlessly walked away taking both drinks with him. Jonathan grinned at his back before turning his focus to her. “Still breaking hearts, I see.”
She blushed. “Jonathan, I promise you, I was merely sitting here, simply minding my own business.”
“Yeah, well, I seem to remember that’s what you were doing when I met you that day in London. Didn’t make me any difference, either when I noticed you just sitting there. You’re still that kind of magnet.”
She blushed harder and changed the subject. “So, where exactly did you come from? How did you know I was even down here?”
“I didn’t. I got back, went up to the suite, and you weren’t there.” He reached across for her drink, and sampled it. “So I came down here for a change of venue. Imagine my surprise and delight to find you here. With company.”
“Would-be company,” she clarified accepting the glass he slid back to her. “And you just happened to arrive in time to shut him down.”
He signaled a waiter. “I’ll have what the lady is drinking,” he said to the young man when he arrived.”
“So why are you back so soon, Jonathan? I expected Bear to have you out on the town for most of the night. Being that he’s a native Bostonian and single, I would have thought he’d have taken you to all his more respectable local haunts.”
“We went over to his building where he showed me around. Real nice facility. Then we went out to his boat docked not too far from there. Since we were already out there, we ate at a sports bar in the marina-“
“Burgers and fries?”
“The burger had lettuce and tomato on it. The fries still had the skins on.”
She sighed and shook her head at him.
He continued. “We caught the tail end of the game, after which we went out to his place to catch the start of the other. Real nice setup; it’s a condo, but a huge one he shares with Junior when he’s home.
“We had just gotten settled into the den when the ex showed up, apparently unannounced. He was thinking when she shot out of there after the photo shoot she’d gone back to her hotel for the night. Needless to say, the atmosphere didn’t waste time getting a little tense, and not in a good way, so I made a polite exit and came back here.”
“Oh, no. Poor Bear.”
“ ‘Oh, no, Poor Bear’ is right. I hated leaving him boxed in all alone with her like that, but bottom line, it wasn’t my business. I guess she wasn’t through with him.”
“What do you mean ‘wasn’t through’?”
“Oh yeah, you were on the other side talking with the daughter during the photo session. While the photographer shot the pictures, Helena spent most of that time shooting Senior the evil eye. Then right after J.J. and Junior left, she gave Senior hell.”
“About what? Bear hardly said a word to her. Or to anyone. In fact, Senior and Junior hardly said a word the entire time the photographer was there.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, especially with Junior. From what I heard of it out in the garden, the wife was pretty bent out of shape about the kids not having a limousine for the function. She mentioned feeling like Senior cut her out of Junior’s plans for the night.
“What a mess.” Jennifer took drag off her glass. “What Victoria said to me is making more sense. I hope Teddy, Jr. hasn’t been too affected by the discord I’m sure he’s witnessed in the past couple days with both his parents having to interact with each other.”
“What did she say?”
“Well, it seems little Teddy has an ulcer in his medical history, the symptoms of which were exacerbated by his parents’ relationship- or lack thereof while he was growing up at home. It’s one of the reasons Bear has primary custody of him. Victoria said Teddy Jr. grew up a sickly little kid, but reportedly, he’s gotten better and blossomed since his parents’ breakup.”
“Wow, sure can’t tell that from looking at him,” Jonathan said. “He looks as vital, healthy, and normal as any kid his age… that’s out with my daughter.”
“He is normal, Jonathan, period. Victoria says he hasn’t been bothered much by the condition since he’s been at Brookfield. She feels being with their father and working with his uncle with the horses at Gresham Hall and at Brookfield, the reduced familial stress in his environment, and being allowed to be his own person has helped him get past it.”
“Victoria seems very involved with him, to be the half-sister. His whole sisters didn’t make it to see him off.”
Jennifer chuckled. “Victoria said that was more a case of the girls not wanting to be party to their parents not getting along than it was finals really keeping the other two at school. They conference-called and got the okay from baby brother to miss the occasion; they’ll make his graduation. As for Victoria and Teddy Jr., it’s kind of like it is with Marnie and Kyle- the one thing that was done right despite all the other discord. Bear’s kids have all been brought up together. Victoria and Teddy, the oldest and the youngest, are indeed very close.”
Jonathan dipped into the bowl of dry-roasted peanuts that had been brought to the table along with his rum.
“That’s what Senior told me,” he said as he popped a couple into this mouth. “I drove back here thinking how fortunate you and I have been with our one.”
She smiled. “We have been, haven’t we? Maybe Helena is bitter because she realizes how much she’s lost. I know I probably would be, no matter what it was that split us up, although I’d never let you know I felt that way.”
“That last part sounds just like you,” he said. “You’d torture me that way. As for me, I’d be all right with it if you were still giving me hell years after we’d been split up.”
She tipped her head. “You’d be all right with it? Why in the world would you be all right with it?”
Jonathan leaned forward on his elbows. “You just said it. Because it would mean you still loved me. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t care what I did; you wouldn’t give me the time of day, and that would kill me. No matter what split us up, I certainly wouldn’t be over you. I’d want you to still care.”
“In our case,” she said, reaching across to slide her fingers between his. “I wouldn’t be the one you had to worry about; it would be your daughter. She doesn’t have a big brother or sister to keep her in check, and I’ve told you, she’s already said what she has planned for both of us should we think about doing anything other than staying married to each other. Our attempting to break up would be “An exercise in futility’, she’s said.”
A strange look, one Jennifer couldn’t decipher quickly enough, flitted onto and faded from her husband’s face faded before he quietly said, “She’s strong enough and willful enough to do whatever she thought she needed to do in that situation. She’s got all the right tools to work with.”
Then he changed the subject. “So what are we going to do for the rest of the evening, Mrs. Hart? Take a drive? Catch a movie? Maybe find a jazz bar? We don’t get a whole lot of quiet and alone all evening nights like this. I gotta tell you, though, sleep is kind of out of the question for me.”
“Until your baby makes it home, Mr. Hart?”
Something wasn’t right with him. It wasn’t something she heard in what he said; it was more like something she felt. She’d felt it the night before when she found him at the windows, and whatever it was, it was still with him.
“Jonathan, is everything all right?”
“I’m sure it’ll all be fine,” is all he offered.
He had something on his mind, of that she was sure, but she was just as certain he wasn’t ready to give it up. The time spent on the delicate excavation it would take to unearth it could be put to more effective use.
“Well, I have to tell you, sleep wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” she said over the rim of her upturned drink, “and I’m thinking you could do with a diversion or two, yourself. After all, you’ve been neglected and on your own most of the day.”
He smiled. “Well, you were occupied with the kid, and she was more important, but that’s why I love you. You’re so thoughtful. No matter how busy you are, you always know what we need and more so, how to keep us happy.”
“Works both way, darling.” She knocked back what was left and set the glass down. “Works both ways. Let’s go upstairs instead of taking a drive. We have movies and a bar, among other things, right up there.”
Because as quiet as she’d been keeping it, sleep was likely out of the question for her, too.
Seventeen, pretty, inquisitive, and restless weren’t easy things to be, particularly when they all came in one package; she would be the one to know the potential complications in that scenario.
And be a bit concerned over those qualities in her daughter, particularly that last one.
Leaned at the rail on the port side of the promenade deck, J.J. drew the scarf further up over her shoulders and neck to block the cool night breeze from her bare skin as she stared out to the water, relishing the sights, sounds, and smells of the night. She had left the others on the dance floor, a deck below, on the pretense of going to the restroom, but had instead detoured up and out into the open air to snatch a moment or two alone.
Boats of all sizes had always been a delightful part of her life, but this was her first time on a yacht without an adult of some capacity assigned to oversee her.
It felt nice. The night air on her face and in her hair. Being on her own with friends. Without her parents. Without a curfew.
A whole unsupervised night in front of her without a curfew in sight.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, deep breath which she leisurely released while pulling the scarf even closer over her chest.
More than a couple of times she’d caught Teddy’s eyes traveling there, and oddly, for once it hadn’t made her angry or uncomfortable to have that happen.
In fact, it hadn’t felt bad at all to have that happen.
There’s a reason the duchess keeps hers out. And Aunt Sabrina, too, as old as she is. Not to mention my grandmother who’s probably got hers on display up there in heaven.
So far, the night itself had been wonderful, starting with lining up and being announced by uniformed attendants, just like in the movies…
“Master Theodore Martin Baxter, Jr. accompanied by his guest, Miss Justine Jennifer Hart of Los Angeles, California”
The “master” and “miss” thing made her inwardly cringe, but she suppressed the annoyance before it could reach her face.
The Duchess- and Pa- would have been proud of me and my ‘decorum’.
But they could have kept those archaic titles, especially that ‘miss’ mess. It’s Msssss…
But this was a very formal occasion, and it was a prep school prom.
Everything had been so well planned and presented, the ballroom, the programs, the hors d’oeuvres, the live band at the club, the bands and the formal dinner on the yacht, dancing with Teddy…
… especially dancing with Teddy…
And meeting his friends… well, most of them….
Then Dee made the court as prom princess. Denise “Dee” Winston, who spent the past summer sentenced to lockdown at Waverly House, made to attend summer school for dismal grades earned during regular school year. She had recovered those low scores and since gotten her grade point average back to an acceptable level, therefore qualifying her to remain on the track team she so enjoyed but feared her academic performance might prohibit.
Making princess made Dee’s evening, crowning her successful Junior year.
J.J. smiled to herself in recollection of Dee’s excitement and happiness that night in contrast to the sour, dejected, feeling-abandoned girl she was when they met a few months before. Fitz, her date, seemed quite taken with her, and she with him, even though they claimed they weren’t officially a couple.
That got her to thinking how some people might be viewing her and Teddy. They weren’t a couple either, but-
I don’t know why it is we girls can’t just get along….
She hadn’t done anything to anyone.
Don’t start nothin’, won’t be-
“So you are the mysterious J.J. Hart.”
At the question, J.J. turned around to find herself faced with the girl who had given her the dirty look out on the sidewalk of the country club when they arrived. She was flanked by two of the other girls who had gotten out of the car with her and who sat at the table with her at the club and at dinner on the boat.
She said nothing in response.
“Well what?” J.J. asked.
“Are you or aren’t you?”
“Am I or aren’t I what?”
“Don’t play games.”
“I should be saying that to you. You know exactly who I am, or at least you’re aware of what my name is. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have approached me. Try again. Or maybe just go ahead and state your business. I’m not big on playing games either, especially not with strangers.”
The girl crossed her arms. “Well, let me introduce myself. I’m the girl Teddy was supposed to take to this prom.”
J.J. crossed her arms. “I presume you have a name.”
“Tessa. Tessa Baldwin.”
“It’s nice to meet you. And I am Justine Hart.” J.J. extended a hand to her to seal the introduction. When it wasn’t taken, she drew it back. “I take it you feel there’s some sort of problem between us.”
“You,” Tessa said. The two girls on either side of her took a step forward. “You are the problem.”
J.J. took note of the movement, but remained in place. “I don’t understand how I can be a problem for someone who a moment ago I had never met. I would think if we had an issue between us, there would first have to have been some sort of personal interaction.”
“Teddy is my man. He was supposed to be my date.”
Her arms still crossed, J.J. put a finger to the side of her chin. “Funny, Teddy and I talk all the time, about the things we do, school, our friends, but he’s never mentioned a ‘Tessa’ to me, not even in passing. And if indeed he is ‘your man’, as you say, why are you taking this up with me? I would think if you two had that kind of relationship, you’d be having- excuse me, would have had- this conversation with him.”
Tessa leaned in a bit to put her face closer to J.J.’s. “I’m having the conversation with you.”
Smiling and slowly shaking her head behind a quick derisive chuckle, J.J. told her, “No, you’re not.”
“I wondered where you went,” Teddy called as he came through the lounge doors a short distance away. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” He walked up to stand with J.J. but staring with question to the other girls there with her. “You okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” J.J. said, unfolding her arms to take the hand Teddy held out to her. Then she turned back to Tessa and raised an eyebrow to her. “Now would be an opportune time to have that conversation you were attempting to have.”
“What conversation?” Teddy asked, first directing the question to J.J. then switching his focus to the other girls, primarily the one in the center of the group facing them.
“Nothing,” Tessa murmured. She motioned to her partners with the raised fingers of both hands as she avoided Teddy’s eyes. “Let’s go.”
The three of them turned in unison and walked off together. J.J. and Teddy watched them until they disappeared behind the swinging lounge doors.
“What was that about?” Teddy asked, sliding an arm around J.J.’s shoulders and walking them over to the rail. “I got the feeling it wasn’t good.”
With the increased cool breeze, J.J. pulled the scarf closer. “Is she the girl your mother mentioned at dinner last night?”
“Yeah,” and she could hear in his voice the sulleness making an inroad on Teddy’s mood.
“I figured from what she said that she must be.”
“What did she say to you?”
“She said she was supposed to be here with you.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” Teddy said, his sincerity resonating in the softness of his voice and gentle hold on her.
“No problem. I wasn’t bothered by it when your mother brought it up, and I’m not bothered by it now. You made your choice, and I agreed to come here. But Tessa seems to think you’re her man. Any truth to that?” Then she quietly tacked on, “Ever?”
“None. Not ever. We’ve known each other since we were kids; our mothers went to school together, so I guess that’s how they wanted that to work out. It turns out Tessa wanted that, too, but I promise you, I’ve never given her any reason to think there was or ever would be anything between us other than us being friends, more like acquaintances these days. She’s been shooting me daggers ever since she found out I had a prom date, and it wasn’t her.”
“You kept it low about your date?”
“I keep all my personal business personal. I don’t date locals, which I consider the Gresham girls to be. Too much potential for complications that I can avoid by keeping things friendly and myself to me. The only drama I willingly invite into my life is the kind that happens in the script, on the stage, or on the screen. I promise you, J., there’s nothing going on between her and me. I hate she dragged you into this.”
“You don’t have to promise anything to me; you don’t owe me a thing along those lines, and for the record, nobody drags me anywhere. I only asked to be sure of where things stood with you two so I would know what I might be getting into. I don’t like drama either, but I can handle it when it insists on coming my way. I just needed to be sure of my playing position.”
Teddy seemed to relax and to brighten a bit. His arm slid down to hold her at her waist. They both continued to look out to the water as they talked.
“It’s kind of like the thing with you and Wesley,” he said, “Like somebody wants something that will never be. They have trouble accepting reality, and it doesn’t help that what can never be is being egged on by outside parties.”
“Sucks for them,” J.J. said, leaning into Teddy, mostly for the warmth but enjoying the smell and feel of him just the same. “There are some things one has to make his or her own calls on. There comes a point when even your parents can’t make decisions for you or be in charge of what you do. It’s you who has to live with whether or not you’re doing what makes you happy.”
“And- or deal with the consequences of your actions,” Teddy said, turning her to face him.
“That, too,” she said just before he closed his lips over hers.
“Ready for tonight,” he whispered next to her cheek.
“Just as soon as this boat docks,” she breathed next to his.